In his 2013 article ‘Charity to Charity’, Eli Hirsch defends the claim that many disputes in metaphysics are verbal. He gives the following example of an “absurd” line of argument to illustrate the nature of verbal disputes:
(O): “Ordinary people appear to have a misguided theory of what it is to open something. The basic structure of the problem concerns cases in which an object x is appropriately moved or altered in order to gain some form of access to an object y. When one appropriately manipulates the lid of a box to gain access to the (inside of the) box, folk-theory says that one has opened the box. But when one appropriately manipulates the door of a room in order to gain access to the (inside of the) room, folk-theory says that one has opened the door. This is evidently untenable. Folk theory cannot explain the nature of opening something. Any such explanation must imply either that one has opened both the box and the room, or that one has opened both the lid and the door. So which one is the correct alternative to folk-theory? Perhaps one can do no better than an educated guess. But one intuitive clue might be that even ordinary folk will sometimes be willing to say that the room has been opened. This perhaps favors the theory that both the box and the room are opened, rather than that both the lid and the door are opened. Consider, furthermore, the extreme intuitive oddity of saying that one has opened one’s eyelids. Perhaps the least costly theory is that when an object x is appropriately moved or altered in order to gain some form of access to an object y, it is y that is opened, not x. It follows that when you remove the cover of a bed to gain access to the sheet, you have opened the sheet. Mutatis mutandis, when you remove your hat in order to scratch your head, you have opened your head or your scalp. And when you unzip your fly, …”
Hirsch seems to be suggesting that metaphysicians over-think their way into speaking new variants of ordinary language. As a consequence, when they turn back and argue with those whose language they have left behind (ordinary English speakers, say), or turn aside to those who have developed alternate metaphysical idiolects, they end up arguing “verbally”. For Hirsch, a verbal dispute is one in which both parties should be interpreted as being correct, according to their way of speaking. Thus, he claims, “perdurantists, four-dimensionalists, mereological essentialists, organicists, nihilists” and so on might all be uttering truths in their own metaphysical idiolects. He insists that this is not to say that there are no substantive disputes in the vicinity. It is just that, in many cases, we have not yet found good reason to think there are, and that present disputes are non-substantive, i.e., do not pertain to some matter of fact over which parties genuinely disagree. If a non-verbal dispute is to be found in such debates, it resides at the meta-level, when rival parties contend that their way of speaking corresponds to ordinary English. When they do so, they are said to be doing ‘revisionary metaphysics’.
In the above example, the advocate of (O) would contend that, in order to speak correctly, we should talk about “opening rooms”, rather than doors, just as we open boxes rather than lids. The rival revisionary metaphysician who thinks that we should speak of opening doors and lids, thinks that (O) gets the truth-conditions of ordinary English wrong. The truth condition for “Joe opened the door” is that Joe manipulated x (the door) in order to gain access to y (the room) – it is not that Joe manipulated the surface of the door in order to gain access to the door, as (O) would presumably maintain.
Others, like Hirsch, who reject (O) claim that (O) misrepresents the truth-conditions of ordinary English in an absurdly overintellectualized fashion, and pit (O) against a ‘non-revisionary’, common-sensical understanding of English.
In his book ‘Quantifier Variance and Realism’, Hirsch aligns himself with ordinary language philosophers a la the later Wittgenstein. He regards his critical attitude towards the ‘mereologist’ (i.e., the compositional universalist or liberal who thinks that there are many more objects in the world than are commonly supposed) as under-girded by a defence of ordinary language, rather than an expression of ‘metaphysical realism’. In terms of the above dialectic, the metaphysical realist would be the one who repudiates (O) in favour of an alternative but equally deviant ‘idiolect’. These types of philosophers are playfully caricatured by Hirsch as bickering lawyers: “They descend upon us as a legion of ontological lawyers, their briefcases overflowing with numerous arguments and counterarguments, a case for one entity, a case against another. Questions that appear to be trivial beyond the pale of conversation are somehow converted by them into occasions for deep theoretical debate. “Metaphysical realists” are afflicted with a kind of hyper-theoreticalness.”
But it is easy to simply ridicule metaphysics. It is harder to come up with a principled rejection of it, and still harder to find some good replacement for it – a way of proceeding to think about the world at a general level in some illuminating manner free of the defects of ‘metaphysics’. Wittgenstein sees the urge to seek any kind of systematic philosophical picture of the world as itself the problem, and so rids us of the need to find a replacement. But does he meet the first challenge: does he offer a principled and consistent rejection of metaphysics? That is too big a question to answer here. I will, however, address Hirsch’s attempt.
Hirsch claims that metaphysicians take themselves to be speaking English; to be uttering sentences that are true (or false) in English. He argues that many of those sentences are false in English; they are only true in variants of English which give variant meanings to the (e.g.,) existential quantifier. That is, they are true only in languages where ‘there exists…’ has different truth conditions than in ordinary language. All the subtle and often compelling arguments advanced in favour of these metaphysical sentences are feckless next to the fact that, in English, they are commonly regarded as false.
This is the point I wish to query. If an ‘ontological’ proposition – one concerning whatever it is that exists – is agreed to be true among English speakers, that apparently implies that those speakers have an ontology. They take some things to exist, and others not to exist. This in turn suggests that there is a substructure of belief giving rise to that ontology – a substructure composed of (some combination of) ‘ideology’, ‘philosophy’, ‘science’, ‘faith’, and so on.
Two points: (1) this substructure need not be shared across all English speakers, and (2) it need not be internally consistent. Indeed, it would be highly surprising if it were uniformly shared, or consistent. As a result of (1), quantifier variance might be present within and not just between languages, so that different speakers of English might ‘verbally disagree’ about matters of ontology. The response here would probably be to fine-grain and formalize the notion of a ‘language’. In that case, standard English as a linguist might categorise it would not be single language in the philosophical sense. That’s fine. Perhaps more seriously, as a result of (2), it seems like philosophers may not be misguided in questioning the platitudinous ontological claims of ordinary folk, and investigating the underlying logic (or lack of it) within their implicit epistemic ‘substructure’. We are doing this all the time, and that is part of how language (and thus the meaning of such things as the existential quantifier) changes over time and across space.
It is folly to regard ordinary language as orderly and systematic. It is, to be sure, a complex and unruly animal. The late American lexicographer Philip Gove described it thus:
“It may be observed that the English language is not a system of logic, that its vocabulary has not developed in correlation with generations of straight thinkers, that we cannot impose upon it something preconceived as an ideal of scientific method and expect to come out with anything more systematic and more clarifying than what we start with: what we start with is an inchoate heterogeneous conglomerate that retains the indestructible bones of innumerable tries at orderly communication, and our definitions as a body are bound to reflect this situation.”
But it seems just as quick and dirty to regard it as incorrigibly anarchic. Ordinary language evolved as part of the ongoing project to understand and organize the world, or at least our representation of it.
But there is an alternative way of viewing things. Earlier I said that ordinary statements involving existential claims imply an ontology. That might not be right. Perhaps the sentences of ordinary folk are only insights into ‘a confused underlying ontology’ in the sense that they reveal the meaning of words. That is, they reveal something about the widely shared conceptual maps that speakers are walking around with. If the concept of a <hole> appears in a language (as expressed by the word ‘hole’) as the empty space in a perforated object, and the concept of the existential quantifier involves truth-conditions which stipulate that when there are external perforated objects, there are holes, then there are holes. This is revealed by the fact that ordinary folk, perceiving such objects in their environments, assent to the sentence ‘there are holes’. The metaphysician who comes along and rejects the existence of holes is simply mistaken, regardless of what arguments they proffer in favour of their view, according to Hirsch. Is that fair? For example, if there are parts of language and other commonly asserted sentences which appear to be inconsistent with the claim that ‘there are holes’, do we thereby have grounds for saying that in fact, in English, it is not true that ‘there are holes’? Perhaps we would tend to agree that ‘in order for x to exist, x has to be made of stuff’, as indicated by our behaviour concerning other sentences like ‘my bag isn’t in the boot’, ‘Confucius didn’t exist’, ‘fairies aren’t real’, and so on. Does this present a challenge? Do Hirsch and others who follow his approach even have to deal with these problems, i.e., those associated with making various parts of speech consistent? (It is plausible that such consistency could be demonstrated, but even if it couldn’t, is that a problem?).
I don’t think they do have to deal with this problem, since they do not take the ordinary language they wish to cleave to as embedding an ontology in the sense of a set of metaphysical claims about what really exists. If they did, the burden would be on them to maintain that this ‘commonsense ontology’ possesses certain theoretical virtues – consistency, explanatory power, utility, and so on – an attribution which could be disputed. That would be a very unattractive thesis to maintain. Instead, observations about ordinary language serve merely to illuminate semantic facts – facts about the meaning of words – rather than facts about a correct ontology.